20 years of marketing: how B2B marketing has changed – and what the changes can teach you

If your marketing strategy hasn’t changed in the last 20 years, you may have a problem. Your marketing should be evolving, in order to make the most of a changing business landscape.

18306048_mlPicture the scene: You have a new product to launch, so it’s time for a launch event. The champagne’s flowing and editors from 50 of the best trade publications are in attendance to see your product unveiled. Such huge attendance from the trade media results in an avalanche of press coverage. The event is an unrivalled marketing success. Unfortunately, the year is 1995, not 2015.

Back in the 90s, the budgets were big and the marketing was easy. Things have changed dramatically. Marketing budgets have been cut to the bone (while still being expected to deliver meaty results). Opportunities in the trade press are narrowing – and good luck trying to get a harried editor, who is juggling a bigger workload than ever, to attend your event. Yet, despite all of these changes, the 90s remains the blueprint for marketing in the B2B world.

Press coverage… but only for those who can pay

“I started my PR career in the mid-nineties and, for many companies, their marketing hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years,” comments Joanna Watchman, Managing Director of Content Communications. “Most companies are continuing to do things the old-fashioned way: press releases and case studies aimed at the hard-copy trade press. This is a tried-and-true process and, despite diminishing returns, it does deliver for some companies. But the blunt truth is that this type of marketing strategy only works for those that are spending big money on advertising.”

“It’s an unspoken, but increasingly prevalent rule of thumb that only the companies that are supporting the magazines commercially will get the best coverage,” she adds. “My background is in trade publishing and I’m well aware of how much it costs to print a magazine, so my sympathies go out to the trade media, which is now running to stand still. But the reality is that smaller companies without big advertising budgets can’t expect the traditional model of PR to work for them anymore.”

Looking to the consumer market

For those without deep pockets, today’s marketing landscape may look bleak. However, instead of lamenting the days gone by, those in the B2B space need to be looking at other models of marketing – those that are delivering returns. The B2C market, for example, has flourished, even as traditional media continues to struggle. Why? It has embraced the Internet as a platform for a new style of marketing…

“Hard-copy magazines may be a great way to get your messages out there, but they are inevitably limited in scope,” says Joanna. “The Internet, by contrast, is vast and multi-dimensional. This lends itself to communicating in new ways.”

Blogging and tweeting are the younger siblings of traditional articles. Web videos and webinars make PR communication visual and interactive. E-blasts and magazine-style microsites emulate traditional publishing, but hand over the publishing reins to the company itself. This is what consumer giants like Coca-Cola are doing with their marketing – and the B2B world would be wise to follow suit.

The world is now online

Marketing’s move online tallies with a general shift towards the Internet being the first (and often only) stop for information. End users have always looked for solutions to problems, and one of the most effective modes of marketing has been to offer clear, coherent answers. This remains the case. However, whereas before, end users looked to find these answers in trade magazines, now they’re typing their questions straight into the Google search bar.

This offers businesses an invaluable opportunity to ‘speak’ directly to the idle Googler – to offer answers to their questions. And all of this can be done without using a trade magazine as an intermediary. Instead, businesses are becoming their own publishers, sharing good-quality online content, in order to communicate with potential customers – a strategy known as content marketing.

A Hub of activity

“A Content Coms project that provides a good example of this shift from PR to content marketing is the ESOS Hub,” comments Joanna Watchman. “Energy consultant NIFES was keen to position itself as an authority on the new Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS). In the past, this would have involved a PR campaign. However, Content Coms instead created for NIFES a magazine-style portal of content: the ESOS Hub, a one-stop hub of information dedicated to understanding the legislation.”

Instead of generating press coverage from a few articles in trade magazines – articles that may go unread by the target audience – NIFES ended up with a raft of content, including a whole suite of guides, articles and blog posts aimed at different types of readers.

Using this type of sophisticated content strategy, which positions NIFES as an ‘honest broker’ in the market, the company is making a direct connection with potential customers. The website is averaging more than 2,000 unique visitors a month, and riding high as the first non-government-related result when you search for ‘ESOS’ on Google.

Trackable, traceable

It is wrong to think that the changes of the last 20 years have all been negative. Whereas 1995 PR was limited in scope, 2015 content marketing provides a wealth of different ways to engage your potential customers. Good content isn’t static like a page of a magazine – it begs to be shared. Sharing with colleagues – through business-focused social media like 2Degrees and LinkedIn – gives online content a much longer shelf life than a hard-copy article, which typically lands in the recycling bin a week after it’s printed.

Another positive change to the marketing landscape lies in the fact that web-based communications are all fully traceable, too. With the right analytics tools, you can track which key words people are using to find your site; which content is proving most popular; where the website referrals are coming from. In short, you can see what’s working – and what’s not. This provides a level of clarity that simply wasn’t available 20 years ago.

PR… but not as we know it

“PR as we knew it in the 90s is over,” says Joanna. “But what drove good PR twenty years ago remains the same: strong messages; quality writing. The only difference lies in how you get those strong messages out into the marketplace. The smart companies are retaining what was good about 90s PR, while also embracing the range of possibilities offered by marketing in 2015.”

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